Essays on Faith, Family and Culture

The Gifts that He Gives

My husband held the bird’s nest out to me. “Feel the inside.”

I reached out and touched the tiny nest gingerly. “It’s soft.”

“The inside is lined in some soft moss,” he said. “And the outside is woven of coarse pine needles.”

I marveled at the perfect construction of the little bird’s nest. We’d watched the sparrows build their nest among the boughs of the nectarine tree in the orchard. Our seven cats miraculously ignored the plain little birds flitting back and forth to the low-hanging branch as the sparrows wove the sturdy little nest.

The mother sparrow snuggled tightly against her two little eggs while papa kept an eye out for intruders. They allowed us to water the nectarine, flying away but always returning to the swaying boughs where their eggs waited.

One day, we saw eggshells underneath the tree – little blue eggshells the color of a spring sky. We kept a safe distance, forgoing watering the transplanted trees for the privacy of a young family experiencing the joys of parenthood.

A few days ago, my husband realized that the nest was empty. The birds were gone. Just like that, the two had fledged, and the parents flew off to wherever birds go when they know a job is well done.

Wind displaced the nest, flinging it to the earth below where the eggshell clues had fallen. We were able to examine the nest at leisure. We studied the neatly woven pine needles, the strands of grass used to build up the sides to prevent the eggs from rolling out.

Mostly, we marveled at the ingenious way the mother bird had softened the nest just for her little ones.

In Sunday’s gospel reading (Luke 11:1-13) we heard the story of Jesus’ disciples asking him to teach them how to pray. And he does by teaching them to address God as “Our Father.”

Not “My father” or “Jesus’ father” – but Our Father, who art in heaven.

Our Father.

Everyone’s father.

Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you.

Ask and ye shall receive.

If a child asks for a fish, a father does not give him a snake.

If he asks for an egg, a father does not give him a scorpion.

 

Twelve years ago, I thought I wanted a black Labrador retriever named Molly. She was at the Prince Edward County Animal Shelter and we longed for a dog. We’d waited until after our move to Virginia to replace Mr. Foxhound, our previous dog, who was not a foxhound at all but a golden retriever mix.

Molly lounged in her kennel during our drive-by while the shelter was closed. I telephoned the animal control officer as quickly as I could. “I’d like to make an appointment to see the Labrador retrievers.”

We made the appointment and on Wednesday, April 30, drove to the shelter.

The Labradors, it turned out, were nuts.

To be fair, they were probably kept in a kennel without any socialization, but they ignored us. Molly was in a kennel with a companion and the two, when let into the play area for our meet and greet, never stopped for an instant. Nor did they greet us or even acknowledge our existence.

We rose and politely excused ourselves, letting the animal control officer know that these dogs wouldn’t do. What we thought we wanted wasn’t right for us. She asked us what we did want; what kind of dog did we think would fit in with our family?

“I have what I think you are looking for,” she said and whisked away to return with a scrawny female German shepherd.

The dog had ticks, long fur (my husband was against a long-coated dog after the Golden retriever mix killed two vacuums struggling to suck up fur embedded in the carpet), and sorrowful eyes. But she smiled at us shyly and extended a paw when asked. She sat, placed her chin on my husband’s knee, and we were smitten.

That dog, Shadow, turned out to be one of the gifts of my life. My constant companion 24/7, she chased bears off the trail for me, threw herself between me and a creepy man who stopped to talk to us on a walk and kept the deer from eating our apple trees.

Oh sure, she had her problems. She may not have been what I wanted, but she was what I needed on a deep, character-changing level. She answered the deepest need of my heart, and our relationship forever changed my life’s priorities.

God the Father gives us what we need, not what we want. I wanted a black Lab named Molly. I needed a long-haired German shepherd dog named Shadow who taught me the meaning of unconditional love, who softened my heart, who made me feel safe and loved.

Photo by Genessa Panainte on Unsplash

Sparrows are such humble, unobtrusive birds. Most people barely notice them. Yet their morning songs often delight my senses, transporting me decades in time to when I was a child, playing in the May morning light in our driveway, digging under the privet hedge, skipping under the clothesline.

The instinct of parents is to protect, give, and nurture their young. To give them good things – an egg, a fish, soft moss inside the swell of a deep nest in the boughs of a nectarine tree.

If something as simple and small as a sparrow knows to give its children good things, then what God gives us must be wonderful indeed. Knowing a gift when we receive it – a shelter dog up for adoption, an overflowing septic tank (another story for another day), the sight of a crimson cardinal on a snowy day – is grace. Embracing it is surrendering to love; to accept that we are loved beyond measure. It is a gift and an awesome, fearful thing, to be loved by this God.

The young sparrows flew away. We see them now, testing their wings, but they return frequently to the boughs of the nectarine tree where a soft nest was prepared for them.

2 thoughts on “The Gifts that He Gives”

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